Shakespeare and Shylock

The Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

Of The Merchant of Venice the style is even and easy … The comic part raises laughter, and the serious fixes expectation.Samuel Johnson, Notes on the Plays of William Shakespeare

In 1880, the Reverend Charles Dodgson—better known by most as Lewis Carroll—eagerly watched Henry Irving portray the Jewish money-lender Shylock (above) in William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. Irving’s Shylock was the first to explore the character as victim, and to this effect he had announced that he wanted the play to show that “The worst passions of human nature are nurtured by undeserved persecution and obloquy.” He also said he looked upon Shylock as “almost the only gentleman in the play, and the most ill-used”.

While William Hazlitt, as early as 1817, had noted that Shylock had become “a half favourite with the philosophical part of the audience, who are disposed to think that Jewish revenge is at least as good as Christian injuries”, it was Irving who made the character of Shylock his own. According to John Gross in his exhaustive study Shylock (1992), Irving’s final and defeated exit—at the end of the trial scene where Shylock is told that as a Jew and an “alien” his final punishment must be a forced conversion to Christianity—went as follows:

he looked over his shoulder, stared at Antonio, turned back, raised his eyes and murmured a few indistinct words … he seemed distracted, and his gaze grew dull … [then] left the room with a sigh.

As Irving left the stage, a rowdy offstage mob could be heard baying for Shylock’s blood, a touch no doubt inspired by Jesus Christ’s Passion as portrayed in the Christian Gospels.

This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe

Dodgson was deeply moved by the production and wrote to Irving’s co-star, Ellen Terry, who had played Portia, to say how much he had enjoyed the performances of both actors. But he also made it clear that he felt there was an argument to be held with Shakespeare himself. His beef centred around Antonio’s assertion that Shylock “presently become a Christian”:

Now I am going to be bold and make a suggestion … I want to see that clause omitted … It is a sentiment that is entirely horrible and revolting to all who believe in the Gospel of Love. Why should our ears be shocked by such words merely because they are Shakespeare’s? In his day, when it was held to be a Christian’s duty to force his belief on others by fire and sword … the words probably conveyed no shock. To all Christians now … the idea of forcing a man to abjure his religion, whatever that religion may be, is … simply horrible …

I have spoken of it as a needless outrage on religious feeling: but surely, being so, it is a great artistic mistake. Its tendency is directly contrary to the spirit of the scene. We have despised Shylock for his avarice, and we rejoice to see him lose his wealth: we have abhorred him for his bloodthirsty cruelty, and we are suddenly called on to see him the victim of cruelty a thousand times worse than his own, and to honour him as a martyr. This I am sure Shakespeare never meant … I am sure he never meant our sympathies to be roused in the supreme moment of his downfall, and, if he were alive now, I believe he would cut out those lines about becoming a Christian.

Dodgson’s dismay at Antonio’s suggestion has credence. Historically the predominant orthodoxy of the church on this matter had been based on Pope Gregory the Great’s instruction in the sixth century that Jews were not to be baptised by force. This was not to say that persuasions of all forms were never employed, but St Thomas Aquinas reaffirmed (in the thirteenth century) the idea that true belief was—by definition—voluntary. It is also worth noting that the Jew’s forced conversion to Christianity appears to be solely of Shakespeare’s making since there are no other occasions where such a punishment appears in the many “pound of flesh” stories that circulated and grew in popularity throughout the late Middle Ages.

Shylock’s cruel humiliation occurs at the end of Act Four (in the fifth and final act he is referred to only twice and not by name) and it galls modern sensitivities partly because it seems so out of touch with the nobler sentiments expressed in the play—Portia’s “quality of mercy” speech providing the most often quoted example:

The quality of mercy is not strained:
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath …

This speech is intriguing in itself, since it emanates from Ben Sira, a Jewish sage in Jerusalem around 200 BC and whose teachings appear in the Apocrypha under the title Ecclesiasticus. As Gross has pointed out, Shakespeare refers to the Apocrypha in his plays on several occasions and the names of his own daughters, Susanna and Judith, lie within its pages. Ben Sira had intoned:

Oh how fair a thing is mercy in the time of anguish and trouble!
It is like a cloud of rain, that cometh in a time of drought.

Portia’s additional “gentle” is important because the word appears again and again throughout the play. Furthermore, these Christian men and women are foremost gentlemen and gentlewomen and it is their supposed gentleness that is most offended by the prospect of old-fashioned Old Testament Shylock revenge. Even the Jew’s daughter, Jessica, informs these gentlefolk:

But though I am a daughter to his blood,
I am not to his manners.

As Gross wryly points out, Shylock might readily be made a Christian, but could never be considered a gentleman even if he had been “baptised ten times over”.

We have no definite knowledge regarding Shylock’s portrayal in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Portia/Balthasar’s courtroom inquiry, “Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?” belies the idea that Shylock was originally presented as a leering figure replete with red wig and over-sized nose, just as the figures of Judas and Satan had been typecast in the early mystery plays in England. Folklore of course relished the stories of Jews poisoning people, committing ritual murders and having a particular penchant for slaughtering children. Chaucer’s The Prioress’s Tale for instance relates the story of the Jews of Lincoln murdering Hugh the choir-boy.

Shakespeare was no doubt impressed by the revived interest and renewed box-office success of Christopher Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta. This had in turn been brought about by the trial of one of Queen Elizabeth’s physicians, a Jew by the name of Lopez, on a trumped-up charge of attempting to poison her in 1594. In Marlowe’s play, an exuberant Jew by the name of Barabas could declare:

As for myself I walk abroad o’ nights,
And kill sick people groaning under walls,
Sometimes I go about and poison wells.

Shakespeare may well have been one of an eager crowd who had jostled for vantage points to witness Lopez being drawn and quartered.

Concerning the practice of usury itself: the ban was lifted in England in 1571 since it was felt that regulating an existing practice—amongst Christians it must be said, since there were few Jews in England at that time—would be more manageable if the practice was legal. The maximum rate of interest had been set at 10 per cent.

Historically, it is an indisputable fact that Shakespeare’s Shylock has played a key role in the continuation of worldwide anti-Semitic prejudice. Here in Australia, an 1832 Tasmanian newspaper referred to newly-arrived Jewish immigrants as “Shylocks” and the Melbourne Age in 1894 would announce that “the Hebrew … must remain the Shylock of the nations”. In 1917, the Labor MP Frank Anstey published an anti-Semitic pamphlet, typical of the time, The Kingdom of Shylock. Accusing world Jewry of bankrolling the First World War, its cover depicts the then standard caricature of a grinning, wide-mouthed and leering Jew, who leans forward ingratiatingly and boasts: “Mine Verd! Mine Verd! Much shentage on me vestments and no Vor Tax on mein income” (word, percentage, investments, war, my).

The Nazis loved The Merchant of Venice. In Germany in the 1930s there were no fewer than fifty full-scale productions. In a Berlin production in 1942, extras were placed in the audience to hurl abuse whenever Shylock appeared. It was reported that “The voice of the people chimed in from the gallery, their angry cries and shrill whistles echoed from the stalls.”

Problems with the subplot involving Shylock’s daughter Jessica and her prospective inter-racial marriage were overcome by directors such as Lothar Müthel making Jessica the offspring of an adulterous fling between Shylock’s wife and a Gentile: not perfect—as Gross points out, the product of such a union would still have been considered a “Mischling first class”, as codified by the Nuremberg racial laws of 1935, and still sent off to a camp—but at least an improvement.

After the Holocaust, it became impossible—should anyone still find it desirable—to produce the play with Shylock as the “very negation of Christianity” as the critic Pierre Spriet has put it. Beyond the atrocities committed in the name of Hitler’s war, Spriet argues:

It is unthinkable to imagine that today’s audiences could adopt, even for the brief moment of performance, the Christian vision of the world that prevailed in medieval and Renaissance times.

He goes as far as to say that the distance between the intention and meaning of the play in Shakespeare’s own time and the prevailing worldview is so great that performances of the play should be abandoned. He feels that it is wrong to distort the intended anti-Semitic nature of the play simply to make it conform to contemporary sensibilities. While Harold Bloom does not go as far as Spriet, he does agree that any comic force that Shylock may have once had for his intended audience has “long gone” and that only sociopaths would bother to argue the point with Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew” speech. Bloom makes the point that the effect of the play in performance now is akin to imagining Death of a Salesman’s Willy Loman wandering on to the set of Kiss Me Kate, so disengaged is Shylock’s grimness from “Portia’s Venetian smart set”. None of this is to say that in his view the play should be dismissed or shelved. Bloom identifies a force in Shylock’s mere 360 lines that goes well beyond the play’s comic needs. He concludes that Shylock’s character could “not be pinned down by Shakespeare and grew to something beyond comedy”—and further: “Even at his most morally dubious, Shakespeare at once confounds our expectation and yet does not forsake his universality.”

John Gross makes a series of observations that resound with good sense. Shakespeare’s Shylock is a villain and he is a Jew. He need not have been a Jew. He is a Jew for a reason. His perceived faults are based on late-sixteenth-century ideas of Jews being cunning, possessing a blood lust and a desire for revenge. He is intended as a hate figure and to be mocked for our amusement; after all the title page of the First Quarto informs us that in this comedy Shylock is possessed of “extreame crueltie”. As the most notorious Jewish character in all fiction, he has, as we have seen, often been called upon by various anti-Semitic causes.

To think of Shakespeare as some form of proto-postmodern liberal, driven by a “programmatic vision” against prejudice, is delusional. As Gross puts it, if this had been the case, “he would have done better not to have written The Merchant of Venice at all”. He wonders whether the humanising of Shylock was somehow reflective of Shakespeare himself. Did he draw Shylock, as James Joyce put it, “out of his own long pocket”? Shakespeare was an especially shrewd and successful businessman, the first in his profession to take out a coat of arms. He purchased his New Place property for only sixty pounds, possibly because the previous owner owed him money. He took a local apothecary to court to recoup money owed. He himself charged interest on money loaned. He also understood artistic economy: Shylock, on stage for less than a quarter of the play and not present at all in the final act, completely dominates its performance and its discussion.

The question of the play’s relevance to a modern audience is perhaps best addressed by something that was written as long ago as 1796. The Exeter clergyman and antiquarian Robert Hole wrote an imaginary and futuristic theatre review based on the extraordinarily visionary premise that the Jews would once again be living in Palestine. His fictional Jerusalem Daily Advertiser publishes the following:

On the fourth day of the first week in the month of Nisan was represented the tragedy of “Shylock” written by Nathan Ben Boaz. The plot is borrowed from an old British bard, who flourished about the beginning of the 17th century of their era; and who composed it under the influence of the spirit of inveterate malice against our nation for which, in that and many preceding ages, the Europeans were notorious … On examining [the bard’s] numerous commentators, and other records of the times, it appears that no censure was ever cast, no unfavourable sentiment entertained of the unjust judge, the injurious merchant, the undutiful daughter and prodigal lover. What an idea does this give of the English nation when such sentiments could be applauded!

Cedric Watts, in an introduction to a Wordsworth Classics publication of the play in 1993, closes by making the point that as disconcerting as some of the work’s prejudice may seem today, the text of The Merchant of Venice itself is of sufficient depth to allow genuine questioning of those prejudices. And before we commend ourselves too heartily regarding our own advantaged view on the world, Watts reminds us that in our own era, matters of “intolerance, violence and decadence” are reported in our newspapers every day.

In the nineteenth century, Leigh Hunt was wrong to suspect that Shakespeare’s “main feeling in writing the play was to give a kindly lecture to the egoism of sects and opinions”. This is eloquently put, but avoids the fact that Shylock’s humiliation was there to be laughed at. That the demise of the Jew did resonate on a different level for an enlightened few, and that over time we have become accustomed to read the play differently, says much for the complexity of the Shylock character and also Shakespeare’s genius. Bloom points out: “Had Hitler won the Second World War and gone on to add ten million more Jews to his achievement of six million corpses, then Shylock would have ceased to reverberate.”

As it is, the archival footage and other reminders of the death camps will continue to shock us for as long as we remain human. Throughout this piece, Shylock himself has remained remarkably silent. In closing we will have him, once again, question the gentile merchant Antonio’s sense of dignity:

Say this: “Fair sir, you spat on me on Wednesday last;
You spurned me such a day; another time
You called me dog, and for these courtesies
I’ll lend you thus much moneys”?

Antonio’s reply signals why the play maintains a troublesome relevance:

I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too. 

Barry Gillard, who lives in Geelong, writes for Quadrant on literary and cultural matters. He wrote on Edmond Halley in the November issue.

2 thoughts on “Shakespeare and Shylock

  • colin_jory says:

    Barry Gillard, sadly you are right. Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is not presented as a sympathetic character, but as a profoundly malignant one – with his malignity being represented not as a personal idiosyncracy, but as a to-be-expected effect of his Jewishness. The chief manifestation of his malignity, of course, is his determination to obtain by “lawfare” a pound of the flesh of his long-term chief tormentor, Antonio; and although Shakespeare accords Shylock humanly good reasons for loathing Antonio – “You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog, and spet upon my Jewish gaberdine”; “You, that did void your rheum [i.e., clear your throat] upon my beard, and foot me as you spurn a stranger dog over your threshold” – contextually the audience is invited and expected to react to these reasons in a “Serve you right!” unsympathetic fashion. The penalties imposed on Shylock at the end of the play as a quid pro quo for his life being spared, including the requirement that he convert to Christianity – which Elizabethans would have recognised to mean simply that he attend Christian worship, in the way Catholic recusants of their own day were required to attend Established Church worship – are represented not as draconian injustices to him, but as Christian mercies shown to him by the Duke, and are explicitly juxtaposed with his own lack of mercy.

    Yet Shakespeare – unexpectedly in terms of audience expectations – spares Shylock from being simply another stock Elizabethan melodramatic villain by at two points in the play, for no good reason in terms of the play’s overall “argument”, showing him to have a human soul. The first instance is Shylock’s “I am a Jew speech” – one of the half-dozen greatest speeches in Shakespeare. The second, completely unexpected, comes after Shylock has been raving and fulminating against his absent daughter Jessica for her becoming a Christian, marrying Lorenzo, and stealing some of his wealth to subsidise their honeymoon. The audience is induced to be convulsed with mirth until, in response to the information that the newly-weds had exchanged Shylock’s “torquise” for a monkey, Shylock responds, “I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys!” This sentiment is an out-of-the-blue shock for the audience, in that we are wrenched from our malicious glee and compelled, for an instant – albeit only for an instant – to view Shylock sympathetically as a fellow-human, possessed of a soul which can and does, albeit selectively, profoundly love. In Shakespeare’s plays there are many other instances of the dramatist’s bringing to bear, for no dramatically good reason, his deep Christian humanism.

    I offer the following reflection supplementary to Barry Gillard’s reflections. Because, as Barry tells, in Shakespeare’s day there were a negligible number of Jews in England (mostly present merely temporarily), Judaism having been made illegal in 1290, Shakespeare would not have expected that his play would be found offensive by any significant number of people. He therefore felt he could, with ill-will towards none alive, indulge his audiences’ atavistic mental caricatures of Jews and Jewishness with a comedy grounded in those caricatures. Nevertheless, he felt some qualms of conscience about doing so, and therefore prodded his audiences with dramatically superfluous – and anomalous – subtle reminders that real Jews anywhere were real humans like themselves, and not mere caricature figures.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Thanks Barry, interesting article and thoughtful comment from colin. I’ve read the play a number of times and always enjoyed it and can easily identify with all the points and comments. Shakespeare pretty well covered all bases I think as there are times when I was sympathetic to Shylock and not so to Antonio but at the end of the day I think Shakespeare did a very good job with it all and particularly so, considering the times.
    I have friends in England who are Sephardic Jewish and although Henry never was particularly religious he could quote from memory Shylock’s “I am a Jew” speach.

Leave a Reply